Is there more to James Grey’s Ad Astra than meets the eye? Or is there less? It’s something I’ve been turning over and over in my mind since seeing it a week ago. I suppose the fact that I am still thinking about it, when so many movies are forgotten by the time I get to my car in the parking lot, is something. Yet I can’t help but wonder if this is a cinematic version of three card monte in which Astra has the appearance of weightiness but is a vacuum at its core. If nothing else, the screenplay by Ethan Gross and Grey does attempt to tackle important and timely themes. Whether it does so in depth, is something else altogether.
Set in the near future, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is a man who’s walled himself off from the world. Calm even in the midst of dire circumstances - much is made of his consistently low resting heart rate – he miraculously survives a fall from a floating antenna station after its hit with an electrical surge. It seems these events will increase in frequency, ultimately threatening all life on Earth. McBride is told all this after he recovers, as well as the fact that officials at NASA suspect his father, astronaut Cliff McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) may be responsible. Seems as though many years ago, he was sent on a mission to the outer regions of the cosmos, his last known location being in orbit around the planet Neptune, where these surges are now originating from.
The powers-that-be offer McBride the opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps by traveling to Neptune to get some answers and perhaps be reunited with his dear old dad, a prospect that fills him with anxiety and dread. His journey makes up the bulk of the film, with stops along the way on the moon, where our hero is accosted by lunar pirates, an outpost on Mars and a wayward spacecraft that contains what is either the most inspired or ludicrous surprise of the 2019 cinematic year.
Along the way, McBride wrestles with his identity and how the absence of his father has affected him all these years. He’s well aware that his calm demeanor is a lie, a constantly controlled performance employed to hide his insecurities. He recognizes he’s damaged goods, that he’s not fit to be an adequate partner to his wife, Eve (Liv Tyler), and that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold it all together. Pitt is very good here, his boyish charm preventing his character’s introspection from becoming overwhelming. The actor displays a vulnerability that’s wholly convincing, adding a layer to his characterization the script lacks.
Shades of Apocalypse Now begin to creep in once we’re made aware the senior McBride may be a mad man who needs to be eliminated rather than rescued. Grey is very deliberate in his approach and while the film seems long, it’s never dull. The movie is a constant visual delight and its pacing is a welcome respite that allows the viewer to consider all that’s going on. There’s something to be said for not telling every story at a breakneck pace.
In looking at the theme of repression and the thorny dynamics of father-son relationships as well as serving as a timely indictment of an older generation that commits sins their children will have to answer for, Ad Astra has a full narrative plate. Whether that consists of empty calories is something each viewer will have to determine for themselves. That I’m willing to sit through this movie again is a recommendation in and of itself.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.